The supreme court is the highest court within the hierarchy of courts in many legal jurisdictions. Other descriptions for such courts include court of last resort, apex court, and high court of appeal. Broadly speaking, the decisions of a supreme court are not subject to further review by any other court. Supreme courts typically function primarily as appellate courts, hearing appeals from decisions of lower trial courts, or from intermediate-level appellate courts.
However, not all highest courts are named as such. Civil law states tend not to have a single highest court. Additionally, the highest court in some jurisdictions is not named the "Supreme Court", for example, the High Court of Australia. On the other hand, in some places the court named the "Supreme Court" is not in fact the highest court; examples include the New York Supreme Court, the supreme courts of several Canadian provinces/territories, and the former Supreme Court of Judicature of England and Wales and Supreme Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland, which are all subordinate to higher courts of appeal.
The idea of a supreme court owes much to the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It was while debating the division of powers between the legislative and executive departments that delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention established the parameters for the national judiciary. Creating a "third branch" of government was a novel idea; in the English tradition, judicial matters had been treated as an aspect of royal authority. It was also proposed that the judiciary should have a role in checking the executive power to exercise a veto or to revise laws. In the end, the Framers of the Constitution compromised by sketching only a general outline of the judiciary, vesting of federal judicial power in "one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." They delineated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole.
Some countries have multiple "supreme courts" whose respective jurisdictions have different geographical extents, or which are restricted to particular areas of law. Some countries with a federal system of government may have both a federal supreme court, and supreme courts for each member state, with the former having jurisdiction over the latter only to the extent that the federal constitution extends federal law over state law. However, other federations, such as Canada, may have a supreme court of general jurisdiction, able to decide any question of law. Jurisdictions with a civil law system often have a hierarchy of administrative courts separate from the ordinary courts, headed by a supreme administrative court. A number of jurisdictions also maintain a separate constitutional court, such as Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Russia, Spain and South Africa. Within the former British Empire, the highest court within a colony was often called the "Supreme Court", even though appeals could be made from that court to the United Kingdom's Privy Council. A number of Commonwealth jurisdictions retain this system, but many others have reconstituted their own highest court as a court of last resort, with the right of appeal to the Privy Council being abolished.
In jurisdictions using a common law system, the doctrine of stare decisis applies, whereby the principles applied by the supreme court in its decisions are binding upon all lower courts; this is intended to apply a uniform interpretation and implementation of the law. In civil law jurisdictions the doctrine of stare decisis is not generally considered to apply, so the decisions of the supreme court are not necessarily binding beyond the immediate case before it; however, in practice the decisions of the supreme court usually provide a very strong precedent, or jurisprudence constante, for both itself and all lower courts.
Common law jurisdictionsThe High Court of Australia is the supreme court in the Australian court hierarchy and the final court of appeal in Australia. It has both original and appellate jurisdiction, the power of judicial review over laws passed by the Parliament of Australia and the parliaments of the states, and the ability to interpret the Constitution of Australia and thereby shape the development of federalism in Australia.
The High Court is mandated by section 71 of the Constitution, which vests in it the judicial power of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Court was constituted by, and its first members were appointed under, the Judiciary Act 1903. It now operates under sections 71 to 75 of the Constitution, the Judiciary Act, and the High Court of Australia Act 1979. It is composed of seven Justices: the Chief Justice of Australia, currently Susan Kiefel, and six other Justices. They are appointed by the Governor-General of Australia on the advice of the federal government, and under the constitution must retire at age 70.
BangladeshThe Supreme Court of Bangladesh is created by the provisions of the Constitution of Bangladesh, 1972. There are two Divisions of the Supreme Court, i.e. Appellate Division and High Court Division. Appellate Division is the highest Court of Appeal and usually does not exercise the powers of a court of the first instance. Whereas, the High Court Division is a Court of the first instance in writ/judicial review, company, and admiralty matters.Supreme Court of Hong Kong was the final court of appeal during its colonial times which ended with transfer of sovereignty in 1997. The final adjudication power, as in any other British Colonies, rested with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, United Kingdom. Now the power of final adjudication is vested in the Court of Final Appeal created in 1997. Under the Basic Law, its constitution, the territory remains a common law jurisdiction. Consequently, judges from other common law jurisdictions can be recruited and continue to serve in the judiciary according to Article 92 of the Basic Law. On the other hand, the power of interpretation of the Basic Law itself is vested in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing, and the courts are authorised to interpret the Basic Law when trying cases, in accordance with Article 158 of the Basic Law. This arrangement became controversial in light of the right of abode issue in 1999, raising concerns for judicial independence.
IrelandThe Supreme Court is the highest court in the Republic of Ireland. It has authority to interpret the constitution, and strike down laws and activities of the state that it finds to be unconstitutional. It is also the highest authority in the interpretation of the law. Constitutionally it must have authority to interpret the constitution but its further appellate jurisdiction from lower courts is defined by law. The Irish Supreme Court consists of its presiding member, the Chief Justice, and seven other judges. Judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President in accordance with the binding advice of the Government. The Supreme Court sits in the Four Courts in Dublin.
Israel's Supreme Court is at the head of the court system in the State of Israel. It is the highest judicial instance. The Supreme Court sits in Jerusalem. The area of its jurisdiction is the entire State. A ruling of the Supreme Court is binding upon every court, other than the Supreme Court itself. The Israeli supreme court is both an appellate court and the high court of justice. As an appellate court, the Supreme Court considers cases on appeal on judgments and other decisions of the District Courts. It also considers appeals on judicial and quasi-judicial decisions of various kinds, such as matters relating to the legality of Knesset elections and disciplinary rulings of the Bar Association. As the High Court of Justice, the Supreme Court rules as a court of first instance, primarily in matters regarding the legality of decisions of State authorities: Government decisions, those of local authorities and other bodies and persons performing public functions under the law, and direct challenges to the constitutionality of laws enacted by the Knesset. The court has broad discretionary authority to rule on matters in which it considers it necessary to grant relief in the interests of justice, and which are not within the jurisdiction of another court or tribunal. The High Court of Justice grants relief through orders such as injunction, mandamus and Habeas Corpus, as well as through declaratory judgments. The Supreme Court can also sit at a further hearing on its own judgment. In a matter on which the Supreme Court has ruled - whether as a court of appeals or as the High Court of Justice – with a panel of three or more justices, it may rule at a further hearing with a panel of a larger number of justices. A further hearing may be held if the Supreme Court makes a ruling inconsistent with a previous ruling or if the Court deems that the importance, difficulty or novelty of a ruling of the Court justifies such hearing. The Supreme Court also holds the unique power of being able to order "trial de novo".constitutional matters, but any other case may be appealed further to the Appellate Court. In addition, an agreement between Nauru and Australia in 1976 provides for appeals from the Supreme Court of Nauru to the High Court of Australia in both criminal and civil cases, with the notable exception of constitutional cases.Mark Lundy to the Privy Council in 2013 will be the last appeal to the Board from New Zealand.
The new Supreme Court of New Zealand was officially established at the beginning of 2004, although it did not come into operation until July. The High Court of New Zealand was until 1980 known as the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has a purely appellate jurisdiction and hears appeals from the Court of Appeal of New Zealand. In some cases, an appeal may be removed directly to the Supreme Court from the High Court. For certain cases, particularly cases which commenced in the District Court, a lower court may be the court of final jurisdiction.
With respect to Pakistan's autonomous territories the Supreme Court's jurisdiction is rather limited and varies from territory to territory; it can hear appeals only of a constitutional nature from Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Azad Kashmir has its own courts system and the constitution of Pakistan does not apply to it as such; appeals from Azad Kashmir relate to its relationship with Pakistan.
The provinces have their own courts system, with the High Court as the apex court, except insofar as where an appeal can go to the Supreme Court as mentioned above.
United KingdomThe Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the ultimate court for criminal and civil matters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and for civil matters in Scotland. The Supreme Court was established by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 with effect from 1 October 2009, replacing and assuming the judicial functions of the House of Lords. Devolution issues under the Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act and Northern Ireland Act were also transferred to the new Supreme Court by the Constitutional Reform Act, from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
The Supreme Court shares its members and accommodation at the Middlesex Guildhall in London with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which hears final appeals from certain smaller Commonwealth realm countries, admiralty cases, and certain appeals from the ecclesiastical courts and statutory private jurisdictions, such as professional and academic bodies.
The Supreme Court was set up in 2009; until then the House of Lords was the ultimate court in addition to being a legislative body, and the Lord Chancellor, with legislative and executive functions, was also a senior judge in the House of Lords.The Supreme Court of the United States, established in 1789, is the highest federal court in the United States, with powers of judicial review first asserted in Calder v. Bull in Justice Iredell's dissenting opinion. The power was later given binding authority by Justice Marshall in Marbury v. Madison. There are currently nine seats on the US Supreme Court.
Each U.S. state has its own state supreme court, which is the highest authority interpreting that state's law and administering that state's judiciary. Oklahoma and Texas have separate criminal and civil courts of last resort.
In Texas, the state's Court of Criminal Appeals hears criminal appeals and has sole authority to grant the writ of habeas corpus to a person who has been convicted of a felony, but the Texas Supreme Court also hears appeals in juvenile delinquency matters in additional to civil cases as conventionally defined. Although juvenile cases fall under the Texas Family Code and are classified as civil proceedings, they are "quasi-criminal" in nature. In re M.A.F., 966 S.W.2d 448, 450 ; see In re L.D.C., 400 S.W.3d 572, 574.
Although Delaware has a specialized court, the Court of Chancery, which hears cases in equity and many disputes involving corporate governance because many corporations chose to incorporate in Delaware regardless of where in the United States their operations and head office may be located, it is not a supreme court because the Delaware Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over it.
The official names of state supreme courts vary, as do the titles of its members, which can cause confusion between jurisdictions because one state may use a name for its highest court that another uses for a lower court. In New York, Maryland, and the District of Columbia the highest court is called the Court of Appeals, a name used by many states for their intermediate appellate courts. Further, trial courts of general jurisdiction in New York are called the Supreme Court, and the intermediate appellate court is called the Supreme Court, Appellate Division. In West Virginia, the highest court of the state is the Supreme Court of Appeals. In Maine and Massachusetts the highest court is styled the "Supreme Judicial Court"; the last is the oldest appellate court of continuous operation in the Western Hemisphere. Even within the same jurisdiction, the titles for judicial officeholders can cause confusion. In Texas, the members of the Supreme Court and of the 14 intermediate courts of appeals are Justices, while the members of the Court of Criminal Appeals carry the title Judge, which is also used generically. Judges at the lowest trial-court level are called Justices of the Peace or JPs.
Civil law jurisdictionsThe Roman law and the Corpus Juris Civilis are generally held to be the historical model for civil law. From the late 18th century onwards, civil law jurisdictions began to codify their laws, most of all in civil codes.
ArgentinaThe Supreme Court functions as a last resort tribunal. Its rulings cannot be appealed. It also decides on cases dealing with the interpretation of the constitution.
AustriaIn Austria, the Austrian Constitution of 1920 introduced judicial review of legislative acts for their constitutionality. This function is performed by the Constitutional Court, which is also charged with the review of administrative acts on whether they violate constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Other than that, administrative acts are reviewed by the Administrative Court. The Supreme Court, stands at the top of Austria's system of "ordinary courts" as the final instance in issues of private law and criminal law.Supreme Federal Tribunal is the highest court. It is both the constitutional court and the court of last resort in Brazilian law. It only reviews cases that may be unconstitutional or final habeas corpus pleads for criminal cases. It also judges, in original jurisdiction, cases involving members of congress, senators, ministers of state, members of the high courts and the President and Vice-President of the Republic. The Superior Court of Justice reviews State and Federal Circuit courts decisions for civil law and criminal law cases, when dealing with federal law or conflicting rulings. The Superior Labour Tribunal reviews cases involving labour law. The Superior Electoral Tribunal is the court of last resort of electoral law, and also oversees general elections. The Superior Military Tribunal is the highest court in matters of federal military law.Danish Supreme Court which was established 14 February 1661 by king Frederik III.
FranceIn France, supreme appellate jurisdiction is divided among three judicial bodies:
- for judicial cases, i.e., civil or criminal matters: Court of Cassation
- for administrative cases: Council of State
- constitutional challenges of statutory laws: Constitutional Council
The High Court exists only to impeach the President of the French Republic in case of "breach of his duties patently incompatible with his continuing in office". Since a constitutional amendment of 2007, the French Constitution states that the High Court is composed of all members of both Houses of Parliament. As of 2018, it has never been convened.
While the President isn't, members of the French government are subject to the same laws as other French citizens. However, since 1993, a new and different court was introduced to judge them in place of normal courts, the Justice Court of the Republic. It has since been highly criticized and is scheduled for deletion in a constitutional amendment due for 2019.
GermanyIn Germany, there is no de jure single supreme court. Instead, cases are handled by numerous federal courts, depending on their nature.
Final interpretation of and recommendations for amendments to the German Constitution, the Grundgesetz, is the task of the Bundesverfassungsgericht, which is the de facto highest German court, as it can declare both federal and state legislation ineffective. In addition, it has the power to overrule decisions of all other federal courts, despite not being a court of appeals in and of itself in the German court system. It is also the only court possessing the power and authority to outlaw political parties, should their manifests or activism prove unconstitutional.
When it comes to civil and criminal cases, the Bundesgerichtshof is at the top of the hierarchy of courts. The other branches of the German judicial system each have their own appellate systems, each topped by a high court; these are the Bundessozialgericht for matters of social security, the Bundesarbeitsgericht for employment and labour, the Bundesfinanzhof for taxation and financial issues, and the Bundesverwaltungsgericht for administrative law. The so-called Gemeinsamer Senat der Obersten Gerichtshöfe is not a supreme court in itself, but an ad-hoc body that is convened in only when one supreme court intends to diverge from another supreme court's legal opinion or when a certain case exceeds the authority of one court. As the courts have well-defined areas of responsibility, situations like these are rather rare and so, the Joint Senate gathers very infrequently and only to consider matters which are mostly definitive.
IcelandThe Supreme Court of Iceland was founded under Act No. 22/1919 and held its first session on 16 February 1920. The Court holds the highest judicial power in Iceland. The court system was transformed from a two level system to a three level system in 2018 with the establishment of Landsréttur.
Italyfollows the French system of different supreme courts.
The Italian court of last resort for most disputes is the Corte Suprema di Cassazione. There is also a separate constitutional court, the Corte costituzionale, which has a duty of judicial review, and which can strike down legislation as being in conflict with the Constitution.Supreme Court of Japan is called 最高裁判所, located in Chiyoda, Tokyo, and is the highest court in Japan. It has ultimate judicial authority within Japan to interpret the Constitution and decide questions of national law. It has the power of judicial review.
LuxembourgIn Luxembourg, challenges on the conformity of the law to the Constitution are brought before the Cour Constitutionnelle. The most used and common procedure to present these challenges is by way of the "question préjudicielle".
The Court of last resort for civil and criminal proceedings is the "Cour de Cassation".
For administrative proceedings the highest court is the "Cour Administrative".
MexicoThe Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation is the highest court in Mexico.Supreme Court of the Netherlands is the highest court. Its decisions, known as "arresten", are absolutely final. The court is banned from testing legislation against the constitution, pursuant to the principle of the sovereignty of the States-General; the court can, however, test legislation against treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights. Next to the Hoge Raad, in administrative law there are also other highest courts of appeal. Which highest court has jurisdiction in this field of law depends on the subject of the case. The most important of these courts is the Department of Justice of the Council of State.
NigeriaThe Supreme Court is the highest court in Nigeria.American Supreme Court. This can be attributed to the fact that the Philippines was colonized by both Spain and the United States, and the system of laws of both nations strongly influenced the development of Philippine laws and jurisprudence. Even as the body of Philippine laws remain mostly codified, the Philippine Civil Code expressly recognizes that decisions of the Supreme Court "form part of the law of the land", belonging to the same class as statutes. The 1987 Philippine Constitution also explicitly grants to the Supreme Court the power of judicial review over laws and executive actions. The Supreme Court is composed of 1 Chief Justice and 14 Associate Justices. The court sits either en banc or in divisions, depending on the nature of the case to be decided.the judicial system of mainland China the highest court of appeal is the Supreme People's Court. This supervises the administration of justice by all subordinate "local" and "special" people's courts, and is the court of last resort for the whole People's Republic of China except for Macau and Hong Kong
PortugalIn Portugal, there are several supreme courts, each with a specific jurisdiction:
- The Supreme Court of Justice - for judicial matters;
- The Constitutional Court - for the constitutional matters;
- The Supreme Administrative Court - for administrative and fiscal matters;
- The Court of Auditors - for auditing the public expenditure.
Republic of ChinaIn the Republic of China, there are three different courts of last resort:
- Supreme Court of the Republic of China : civil and criminal cases.
- Supreme Administrative Court of the Republic of China : executive cases.
- Council of Grand Justices : interpretation of the Constitution, interpretation of laws and regulations, dissolution of political parties in violation of the Constitution, trial of impeachments against the President or Vice President.
All three courts are directly under the Judicial Yuan, whose president also serves as Chief Justice in the Council of Grand Justices.
ScotlandFounded by papal bull in 1532, the Court of Session is the supreme civil court of Scotland, and the High Court of Justiciary is the supreme criminal court. However, the absolute highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
SpainSpanish Supreme Court is the highest court for all cases in Spain. Only those cases related to human rights can be appealed at the Constitutional Court.
In Spain, high courts cannot create binding precedents; however, lower rank courts usually observe Supreme Court interpretations. In most private law cases, two Supreme Court judgements supporting a claim are needed to appeal at the Supreme Court.
Five sections form the Spanish Supreme court:
- Section one judges private law cases.
- Section two decides about criminal appeals.
- Section three judges administrative cases and controls government normative powers.
- Section four is dedicated to labour law.
- Section five is dedicated to military justice.
South AfricaIn South Africa, a "two apex" system existed from 1994 to 2013. The Supreme Court of Appeal was created in 1994 and replaced the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa as the highest court of appeal in non-constitutional matters. The SCA was subordinate to the Constitutional Court, which is the highest court in matters involving the interpretation and application of the Constitution. But in August 2013 the Constitution was amended to make the Constitutional Court the country's single apex court, superior to the SCA in all matters, both constitutional and non-constitutional.
ThailandHistorically, citizens appealed directly to the King along his route to places out of the Palace. A Thai King would adjudicate all disputes. During the reign of King Chulalongkorn, an official department for appeals was set up, and, after Thailand adopted a western-styled government, Thai Supreme Court was established in 1891.
At present, the Supreme Court of Thailand retains the important status as the highest court of justice in the country. Operating separately from the Administrative Court and the Constitutional Court, the judgement of the Supreme Court is considered as final.
TurkeyThe Supreme Court, is one of Turkey's four highest judicial authority. Judicial justice is the final review authority of the decisions and judgments issued by the courts of first instance and that the law does not leave to another judicial authority.
The decisions of the Court of Appeal's General Assembly on the Unification of Judgments are binding on judges. This is not a separate appellate body but an assembly of the Court of Appeal which renders decisions regarding points of laws on which its different chambers disagree.Federal Supreme Court of the United Arab Emirates was created in 1973 after the adoption of the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the highest and final superior court of record and is empowered to exercise its powers, subject to the provisions of the Constitution. The court rulings take precedence over all lower Courts. The Emirati judicial system is complex blend of both Islamic law and civil law. In some cases such as capital punishment, the decision may be passed on to the President of the country.
Other civil law jurisdictions
- For Honduras, see Supreme Court of Honduras.
- For Peru, see Supreme Court of Peru.
- For Poland, see Supreme Court of the Republic of Poland.
- For Romania, see High Court of Cassation and Justice.
- For Uganda, see Supreme Court of Uganda
- For Ukraine, see Supreme Court of Ukraine.
- For Vietnam, see Supreme People's Court of Vietnam.
CanadaCanada is a bi-jural country. Nine of the provinces use the common law, while the province of Quebec uses the civil law. Federal public law is based on the common law, but federal statute law must take into account both legal systems.
The Supreme Court of Canada was established in 1875. It is defined by the Constitution Act, 1867 and by the Supreme Court Act as a "General Court of Appeal." As a result, it can hear appeals on any legal issues considered by lower courts, on issues of constitutional law, federal law and provincial law. It can hear appeals involving the common law and the civil law, and has full authority to rule on those issues. The Court can hear appeals from the courts of appeal from the provinces and territories, and also appeals from the Federal Court of Appeal. The court's decisions are final and binding on the federal courts and the courts from all provinces and territories.
The Court is composed of the Chief Justice of Canada and eight puisne justices. Three of the nine justices are required to come from the Bar or superior courts of Quebec, to ensure the Court has a strong membership in the civil law of Quebec. The remaining six justices come from the rest of Canada, traditionally three from Ontario, two from the western provinces, and one from the Atlantic provinces. The Court is institutionally bilingual. Parties can argue their cases in either English or French, and file written materials in either language. The Court will provide simultaneous interpretation for counsel and members of the public. It issues its judgments in both languages simultaneously.
Although created in 1875, the Supreme Court was not originally the final court of appeal. Canada was part of the British Empire, and appeals initially lay to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council from the Supreme Court, and also from the provincial appellate courts, by-passing the Supreme Court. In 1933, the federal Parliament abolished such appeals in criminal matters. It was not until 1949 that all appeals to the Judicial Committee were abolished, although appeals which were pending could be decided by the Judicial Committee.
IndiaThe law of India is a hybrid of common law, civil law, customary law, and religious principles. The Supreme Court of India was created on January 28, 1950 after adoption of the Constitution.
Article 141 of the Constitution of India states that the law declared by Supreme Court is to be binding on all Courts within the territory of India. It is the highest court in India and has ultimate judicial authority to interpret the Constitution and decide questions of national law. The Supreme Court is also vested with the power of judicial review to ensure the application of the rule of law.
Indonesiaat the national level is based on a combination of civil law from the tradition of Roman-Dutch law and customary law from the tradition of Adat. Law in regional jurisdictions can vary from province to province, including even Sharia law, for example Islamic criminal law in Aceh, though even at the national level, individual justices can cite sharia or other forms of non-Dutch law in their legal opinions.
The Supreme Court of Indonesia is the main judicial arm of the state, functioning as the final court of appeal as well as a means to re-open cases previously closed. The Supreme Court, which consists of a total of 51 justices, also oversees the regional high courts. It was founded at the country's independence in 1945.
The Constitutional Court of Indonesia, on the other hand, is a part of the judicial branch tasked with review of bills and government actions for constitutionality, as well as regulation of the interactions between various arms of the state. The constitutional amendment to establish the court was passed in 2001, and the court itself was established in 2003. The Constitutional Court consists of nine justices serving nine year terms, and they're appointed in tandem by the Supreme Court, the President of Indonesia and the People's Representative Council.